Tags: plato | weber | hatfield | niebuhr

Put General Welfare First to Recast Politics as Noble Profession

politics in the digital age

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Tuesday, 05 November 2019 04:16 PM Current | Bio | Archive

During my student days at Willamette University some of us met with Oregon Gov. Mark Hatfield, previously a Willamette political science professor. Just back from visiting Brazil, Hatfield reported that undeveloped land where Brazilia — the new capital — would be built was owned by relatives of top politicians.

Since developed land always zooms in value, these insiders stood to make fortunes.

Despite this disheartening story, Hatfield rejected political cynicism.

Sixty years later, I distinctly remember him saying that if everyone thought that only crooks go into politics, it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would become true because people thought it was true and, sure enough, only crooks would go into politics!

As Plato put it two millennia ago, "The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men."

Years before he ran for office, Donald Trump echoed Plato, "One of the key problems today is that politics is such a disgrace, good people don’t go into government."

Readers can judge for themselves whether his presidency illustrates that generalization or represents an attempt to do something about it.

A negative outlook towards officials or officer-seekers comes easily.

There is a lot of public criticism of government, politicians, and public policies.

When we think about politics, we tend to think about compromise, corruption, telling of lies, selling out. Political candidates reinforce this tendency when they call their opponents crooks, opportunists, stooges for some selfish interest, or idiots.

There is often some truth in what people say about politicians, but we shouldn't generalize the negativity and assume the worst about all politicians. There may be more sincere, public-spirited leaders than we realize. Many Oregonians considered Mark Hatfield (later a U.S. senator) an example of such a leader.

Politics is potentially a truly noble profession, but it is by no means an easy one.

As German sociologist Max Weber put it in his classic "Politics As A Vocation," "Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards."

Successful leadership requires patience, prudence, an understanding of what current circumstances make possible. It also requires imagination to see that current circumstances can sometimes be changed to make today's impossibility tomorrow's actuality.

And true leadership requires putting the general welfare above the leader's personal or peer group interest.

But to be a leader requires power, and as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned us, power is always "morally ambiguous." Power is the ability to get things to happen and can be used for constructive purposes or for destructive purposes. Atomic power can generate electricity with minimum carbon dioxide emissions or it can destroy whole cities.

The Internet's power can help good people cooperate, but it can also enable hate-mongers to contact and cooperate with similarly minded folks.

We need not agree completely with Lord Acton, who supposedly said that "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

For one thing, the latter part of this generalization would have terrifying implications if applied theologically to an all-powerful God. But clearly the desire to get or retain power can sometimes corrupt. And exercise of power may reveal corruption that a person has had all along.

A person trying to get or retain political power because of a sincere desire to improve the world must necessarily make some compromises. The problem is to figure out at what point the costs of these compromises outweigh the progress that the leader can achieve from a governmental office.

Political power is only one way to address the world's problems, and peaceful private action, individually or with the aid of others, may sometimes be preferable.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
 

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PaulFdeLespinasse
Successful leadership requires patience, prudence, an understanding of what current circumstances make possible. True leadership requires putting the general welfare above the leader's personal or peer group interest.
plato, weber, hatfield, niebuhr
707
2019-16-05
Tuesday, 05 November 2019 04:16 PM
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